To stop pirates, do ships need firepower?

Most merchant sailors are not trained to use weapons, but some maritime educators say that is changing.

After pirates boarded the Maersk Alabama, the unarmed crew did the unthinkable: They fought back and, apparently, regained control of the huge and lumbering container ship.

It’s not yet clear how the American crew was able to do it. Neither international nor US maritime regulations require shipboard crews to be trained in the use of weapons. But at least some of those aboard are known to be among a relatively small number of US merchant sailors who’ve been trained in weapons and defensive tactics at maritime academies.

In the wake of Wednesday’s incident in waters of Somalia, all aspects of security training for merchant marines are likely to be reexamined and, probably, intensified, say educators at the nation’s maritime academies.

“I can almost guarantee there will be a major review of course curriculum after this incident,” says Glen Paine, executive director of the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies in Linthicum, Md.

That academy, which offers graduate training for seamen, is among the few that offers limited weapons training to meet requirements of the US Military Sealift Command, which requires weapons training for ship officers and other crew.

Most US maritime academies do not offer weapons or force-on-force training. That’s because most shipping companies follow a long tradition of merchant vessels remaining unarmed – which makes them easy prey for pirates, but prevents bloodshed and damage to the ship.

Except for using fire hoses and axes to try to prevent pirates from boarding, merchant crews have few options except to surrender. Many shipping companies remain opposed to weapons training for crews, but that could change, educators say.

“We’ve elected to do [marksmanship training],” says Capt. Thomas Bushy, vice president of marine operations and master of the training ship Kennedy, at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay. “There’s a small probability that some companies may start to equip their vessel with firearms. So if they do, we want to make sure that the students have that training.”

Some shipping companies that serve the US Navy’s Military Sealift Command, including Maersk, are required to have crew members trained to use weapons. Of six merchant maritime academies in the US and other union-run educational institutions, at least two – the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and the union-run Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies – provide training in defensive tactics and weapons use.

Most US maritime academies graduate perhaps 200 students a year – for a grand total of about 1,000 to 1,200 new merchant marines per year, says Mr. Paine. Some 20,000 US mariners work in the shipping industry. Among those, a fraction have had weapons training.

In all likelihood, one of them is Shane Murphy, chief officer of the Maersk Alabama and a 2001 graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. It could not be confirmed if he has had weapons training, though it seems likely given Maersk’s service to the Military Sealift and company comments.

“All the crew members are trained in security detail in how to deal with piracy,” Maersk CEO John Reinhart told reporters Wednesday in a press conference. “As merchant vessels, we do not carry arms. We have ways to push back, but we do not carry arms.”

Some shipping companies, though, are moving beyond basic security training to include weapons instruction and other active defensive measures. At least one international company now issues rifles to its crews, according to a recent article in Professional Mariner, the journal of the maritime industry.

That flies in the face of current training for most US and international merchant vessels, maritime educators say.

“We do not have armed ships and mariners are not armed, so the unwritten message is that after the prevention procedures have failed, there isn’t much you can do,” says Dennis Compton, who heads planning and assessment for the US Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y. “But now we’re looking at the first time a US crew was actually involved. It’s largely been a problem for other people and not the US. But not anymore.”

Besides weapons training, shipping companies are adding measures to beef up ship defenses. In November 2005, a cruise liner, the Seabourn Spirit, used a sonic blast from a “long-range acoustic device,” or LRAD, to repel pirates who were trying to board.

Shocks from an “electric fence” have also been tried, along with night-vision systems to prevent pirates from being able to get close to the vessels. Indeed, outrunning pirates is still one of the best approaches. Although pirate boats are faster, a large ship moving at 16 knots or more creates an enormous wake that makes it hard to board. Razor wire ringing the ship is another technique.

The extra security isn’t cheap. Sonic deterrent equipment and operators can cost $20,000 to $30,000 per trip, according to documents on the US Maritime Administration website.

But training crew members is key.

“We have an exercise that takes place, in a full mission bridge simulation for entering Singapore, a known area where pirates work out of,” says Capt. George Sandberg, director of maritime simulation at the US Merchant Marine Academy. Such training can help crew members know how to go into “lock-down,” or “citadel,” mode to defend against an attack.

Hector Morales, a former Navy Special Warfare Combatant Crew Member, who also teaches security at the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies, notes that simply arming crew members is not the solution. But something has to change, he says – and training in the use of weapons should probably be included. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified Mr. Morales.]

“We have to give these seamen the tools and training,” he says. “They need proper intelligence, less-than-lethal technology, and all the ways for self-defense. Weapons are just one more tool.”

For his part, Captain Bushy won’t say whether he would arm merchant ships like the Maersk Alabama. “If this ship had had weapons, it may have helped, but I’m not so sure.”

On one hand, arms could escalate the situation so that more people are killed.

Still, he notes, “if you’re going to put weapons on a ship and train people to use them, you have to have plenty of firepower and know how to use it.”

“Use of armed crews who didn’t sign up to fight is a bad idea,” says Giles Noakes, chief maritime security officer for BIMCO, an international association of ship owners. “The industry believes very strongly that it’s not for the companies to train crews to use firearms and then arm them.... If you open fire, there’s potential for retaliation. Crews could get injured or killed, to say nothing of damage to the ship.”

Putting armed teams on board isn’t a good idea either, he says.

While it “might be successful initially, the pirates will look at this problem and come back with bigger weapons and fire them from a distance.”

One option is to have actual military teams from various countries on board, but the industry is on the fence about implementing it.

“With support vessels in proximity, it does make some sense,” Mr. Noakes says. “It’s not ideal. But it’s an idea that some companies and [ship] masters feel can work.”

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